Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex

Written by Daniel Stiepleman (RBG’s nephew) and directed by Mimi Leder, this biopic provides an intimate portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marriage, family life, and early career years.

Felicity Jones plays Ruth, and Armie Hammer takes on the role of her loving husband Marty. While some reviews have suggested that Jones was miscast in the leading role, I believe that she did an excellent job of portraying the tiny and tenacious woman who helped overturn a century of gender discrimination.

From the start, we are privy to the challenges Ruth encountered at Harvard Law School. Undaunted, she didn’t hesitate to snap at the law school dean, glare at male professors who didn’t call on her in class, and correct her fellow male students. She was the well-prepared student who always knew the answers.

Even more extraordinary are the glimpses into her egalitarian marriage. Marty was the consummate loving husband who supported and encouraged Ruth, nurtured his children, and even cooked dinner!

Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ruth encounters blatant sexism as she struggles to find work in New York City. At home, she laments: “I wasn’t what they were looking for… A woman graduating top of her class must be a real ball-buster. I worked hard, I did everything I was supposed to do, and I excelled.” Unable to practice law, she accepts the only position offered: college law professor of gender laws.

The film then jumps to the early 1970s where Ruth is increasingly frustrated by her inability to fight for gender rights in the courts. At home, she and her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) squabble while Marty acts as a peacemaker.

When Marty, who is now a successful tax lawyer, comes across a case of gender bias against a man, he offers it to Ruth, who jumps at the opportunity to expose all the outdated laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

The second half of the film focuses on this case, which concerns the taxation of a Colorado bachelor caring for his elderly mother. At times, the material is dry, and the legal jargon can be difficult to follow.

But Ruth’s commitment to change and dogged determination are inspiring.

When she encounters the skepticism of renowned political activist Dorothy Kenyon (expertly played by Kathy Bates), Ruth responds: “Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change.”

She endures and learns from the criticism of her longtime friend and ally at ACLU (well played by Justin Theroux). After a less than auspicious start in the Colorado courtroom, Ruth rises to the occasion and delivers a dramatic oral argument about the need for “radical social change.”

A must-see film!


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Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Fifty-four years have passed—the largest gap between an original movie and its sequel—but the time is right for another dose of Mary Poppins.

Set during the “Great Slump” of the 1930s, the film takes place 25 years after the original. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, are grown up and still living on Cherry Tree Lane.

Having suffered the loss of his wife and left to raise his three children, Michael receives an unexpected blow when he discovers that his house will be repossessed within five days.

Enter Mary Poppins, expertly played by Emily Blunt.

Delivering a spoonful less sugar and a pinch more spice than Julie Andrews (the original Mary Poppins), Blunt captivates us from the start. After a graceful landing, she proclaims herself the children’s nanny and sets about reforming the household. Her singing and dancing are impeccable. In a recent interview, Dick Van Dyke suggested that Blunt’s sterner approach is much closer to author P.L. Travers’s vision.

“Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda nails the part of East End London lamplighter Jack. Determined to master the Cockney accent, he worked extensively with a dialect coach while filming Mary Poppins Returns.

I was thrilled to see Dick Van Dyke in a brief cameo as banker Mr. Dawes Junior. Still spry at age 92, he delivers a short monologue, jumps onto a desk, and starts dancing. Definitely the emotional peak of the movie.

The all-star lineup includes Colin Firth as a wolfish banker and entertaining cameos from Meryl Streep and Angela Lansbury.

With four Golden Globe Nominations—Best Actor, Actress, Film, Original Score—Mary Poppins Returns is a strong contender in this year’s award season.

Simply delightful or as Mary Poppins would say: “Practically perfect in every way.”


Movie Review: Vice

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as I watched Christian Bale deliver a stellar performance as Dick Cheney. The transformation is a remarkable one: Bale gained forty pounds and adopted the mannerisms, subdued voice, and lumbering gait of the former vice president.

It is not surprising that Bale has been nominated for a Golden Globe. In fact, Vice has six Golden Globe nominations—Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Motion Picture— and is poised to dominate the upcoming award season.

Amy Adams boldly portrays Lynne Cheney, effectively capturing the former Second Lady’s superior intellect and ambition. Without her not-so-gentle prodding, Dick Cheney would not have evolved beyond his two DUIs and limited prospects in Wyoming.

Determined to keep Lynne in his life, Cheney agrees to straighten out. At first, quiet and unassuming, he gradually develops a taste for power and an ability to read people.

I was both fascinated—and repelled—by the manipulative skills that enabled Cheney to rise from congressional intern to White House Chief of Staff to CEO of an oil-field services company to vice-president. Persuading a presidential candidate to abdicate major responsibilities is a testament to his well-honed skills.

While supporting actors Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell deliver excellent performances as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, their roles are not as fleshed out as Bale’s.

Writer-director Adam McKay weaves in humor and irreverence with flashbacks to pivotal events throughout the six-decade span of the film. References to American Idol and Survivor collide with footage of torture and bombings. Spoiler alert: Halfway through the film, McKay teases us with a false ending, one that would have pleased many of us.

A thought-provoking film!


Movie Review: The Old Man & The Gun

This story is mostly true.

And so begins an entertaining film based on the real-life story of Forrest Tucker (beautifully played by Robert Redford), a lifelong criminal who specializes in bank robberies and prison escapes. This polite, charismatic thief is the leader of the Old Timer’s Gang, a trio of criminals that includes Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits).

Set in the early 1980s during one of the Gang’s last crime sprees across the American southwest, the storyline alternates between actual bank robberies, police chases led by Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), and Tucker’s low-key love affair with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow he picks up on the side of the road.

While crimes are planned and committed, there is no real violence. Tucker owns a gun, but he doesn’t fire it. Instead, he charms tellers and bank managers into handing over their cash and then leaves with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Afterward, the victims comment on Tucker’s gentlemanly behavior.

Writer/director David Lowery succeeds in maintaining a lighthearted tone throughout most of the film. I especially enjoyed watching Jewel and Tucker flirt and spar during their dates. But the scenes with Casey Affleck move very slowly. I believe he was miscast as the detective obsessed with capturing the Gang, in particular Tucker.

At age 82, Robert Redford still manages to command the screen with his mature presence and mega-watt smile. Unfortunately, The Old Man & The Gun is his last film. In August, Redford announced his retirement from acting.

A must-see film and a fitting farewell to a movie legend!


Movie Review: The Bookshop

Set in an English coastal town circa 1959, this film is based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel and directed by Isabel Coixet.

Emily Mortimer delivers an excellent performance as Florence Green, a young, idealistic widow who decides to transform a run-down building (aptly called the Old House) into a bookshop. Unfortunately, she lives in a community filled with non-readers. The local bank manager falls asleep after reading three pages of any novel, and Florence’s assistant (delightfully played by Honor Kneafsey) states upfront that she doesn’t read.

But these are the least of Emily’s worries.

Society matron Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) is determined to convert the Old House into an arts center, showcasing lectures and chamber music concerts. A power struggle ensues with Violet’s ruthlessness in full display.

As Florence’s obstacles increase, she finds an unlikely ally in Edmund Brundish (well played by Bill Nighy), a reclusive widower who loves to read. When we first meet Edmund, he is tearing off and burning the dust jacket from a book. While he likes to read, he dislikes the thought that actual people wrote the books. Instead, he prefers to believe that these books came about through “spontaneous generation.”

The film moves at a leisurely pace with little action. In fact, most of the drama seems to occur over a cup of tea. If you haven’t read the novel, prepare yourself for an unexpected ending.

While some reviewers have criticized the voice-over narration, I found it useful for plot development. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the voice belonged to Julie Christie.

An excellent film that will appeal to fans of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, seaside villages, and Bill Nighy.


Movie Review: First Man

Ryan Gosling and Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle reconnect to bring the historic Apollo 11 moon mission to the big screen.

Based on the authorized biography by James R. Hansen, this film focuses on the years 1961-1969, highlighting the many setbacks and sacrifices encountered by Neil Armstrong (well played by Gosling) and the other astronauts in the lead-up the moon landing.

On that momentous July day in 1969, I joined millions of people worldwide and watched as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and delivered those famous lines: “The Eagle has landed” and “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong quickly assumed a global hero status that followed him throughout his life. Very little was known about his past and the family tragedy he faced before joining NASA.

A Korean War vet and test pilot, he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lost their two-year-old daughter Karen to complications from a brain tumor. According to this film, Karen’s untimely death contributed to Armstrong’s solitary nature and robotic self-discipline.

Gosling’s portrayal is spot on. The stony silences, clipped responses to interview questions, and dedication to his work reveal his stoicism. In fact, he was chosen to be the first man on the moon because of his resistance to drama.

Foy delivers an outstanding performance as Janet, Armstrong’s first wife. She doesn’t hesitate to scold her husband into having a sit-down conversation with their two sons before take-off. Well aware of the dangers inherent in the mission, Janet wanted their sons to be prepared for all outcomes. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Claire Foy receives an Oscar nod in the supporting actress category.

The cinematography is outstanding. I could easily imagine myself inside the cramped lunar module and experienced several heart-stopping moments as the spacecraft hurtled toward the crater-pocked surface of the moon. Another possible Oscar nod to Linus Sandgren.

There was some early criticism regarding the lack of a close-up of the American flag. I believe Chazelle made a wise decision, choosing instead to portray Armstrong’s wordless tribute to his daughter as he walked on the moon.

A thought-provoking film!


Movie Review: A Star is Born

So much to love in this beautifully crafted movie that transcends the label of “remake.”

Bradley Cooper took a risk when he decided to launch his directorial debut with the fourth version of a classic. And equally (if not more) impressive…he delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as battered rock star Jackson Maine. Cooper spent years preparing for the film, including many months of learning how to sing and play the guitar.

In a recent interview, Lady Gaga said: “I honestly believe that there’s no other actor on the planet that could have played this role. It’s too specific, and it’s too passion-driven….his voice when I first heard it, just came from his gut.”

Persuading Lady Gaga to take on the role of Ally, an aspiring singer who is ready to give up on her dream, was an inspired decision. Gaga sizzles in her first major movie role, bringing her extraordinary talents to a film slated to dominate the upcoming award season.

With eyes riveted to the screen, I watched as Jackson and Ally connect romantically and musically in this dramatic tale of love and ambition. After listening to Ally’s spell-binding rendition of “La Vie en Rose” in a drag queen nightclub, Jackson sets out to mentor her onscreen and in real life. Ally’s rise to fame begins when Jackson coaxes her onto the stage at one of his shows. Hearing Ally sing “Shallow” was one of the most moving moments of the film.

As Ally’s star rises, Jackson’s career starts to spiral downward. In spite of having seen two of the previous versions, I was still able to remain emotionally present with the storyline.

Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay deliver outstanding performances as Jackson’s half-brother and Ally’s smothering father. Fancying himself an undiscovered Frank Sinatra, Clay sprinkles humor and advice (“It’s not always the best singer who makes it”) into his scenes with Ally.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness!